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Oklahoma State Capitol and flag. (Image: Nicolas Henderson via Flickr)

Oklahoma House, Senate committees pass budget legislation

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers on Thursday began the daunting task of addressing a projected $1.3 billion hole in the next state budget, backing legislation that would raise or save roughly $200 million but knowing more difficult haggling lies ahead.

Members of House and Senate appropriations committees adopted a series of joint budget bills that would increase revenue, including an attempt to capture about $125 million from a cash-flow reserve fund, and trim tax credits, including limiting a credit for clean-burning motor fuel equipment.

Lawmakers also adopted a measure that calls for stepped-up enforcement of tax collections through more auditing and technology services.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman said legislative leaders are still developing more substantial revenue-raising proposals, including a proposed cigarette tax that would generate an additional $180 million a year, a price-indexed gasoline tax, a tax on alcohol, and a broad expansion of the state sales tax to some services that would help fund seniority-based teacher pay raises.

“We’re looking a number of different revenue options,” said Hickman, R-Fairview. “We’ll see where this all ends up.”

Lawmakers are searching for new revenue following months of declines due to falling energy prices and lower tax collections from oil and natural gas production.

Each of the measures adopted Thursday would still need to be passed by the full House and Senate and to be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. The 2016 Oklahoma Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn by May 27.

“We’re trying to cure a $1.3 billion shortfall,” Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said told members of the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget.

“We’re trying to get through this crisis, this energy crisis,” Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, chairman of the House’s majority Republican caucus, told the House Joint Appropriations and Budget Committee.

Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the legislation would help lawmakers fund government responsibly instead of relying on bonded indebtedness and one-time revenue sources.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, said the bills would address ways to create recurring, stable revenue for public education, health care and public safety in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the measures would make a meaningful difference in efforts to adopt a balanced budget.

“There is no publicly announced goal here. We don’t know where we’re going,” said Senate Democratic Leader John Sparks, of Norman.

Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said lawmakers can’t make informed decisions on budget bills unveiled just three weeks before adjournment.

“This is a debate that should have been had on the first month of this session,” Morrissette said. “This is not a way to run a business. We are just shooting darts in the air.”

Among the measures passed Thursday is one that would authorize the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to certify any funds remaining in the cash flow reserve fund in December as available for appropriation, a requirement estimated to capture about $125 million a year.

Another calls for a tax enforcement initiative to generate about $38 million in sales, income and gross production taxes through enhanced use of technology and additional auditing staff. Lawmakers said the staff requirements would cost about $4 million.

In addition, a measure that would cap a credit for using clean-burning fuel equipment, including compressed natural gas, would increase income tax collections by about $6 million a year.

Related: Senate decides to rework flow of oil spill recovery money.

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